W G Hoskins‘ The Making of the English Landscape is one of the best books on British history I’ve ever read. Packed with detail, it takes the reader from a time when England was populated by a few tiny Celtic hamlets and covered in forest, through the creation of villages and towns under successive invasions and through to the industrial revolution and beyond.
On the way the reader learns, at times open-mouthed with astonishment, at how English people lived and worked and eventually tamed enough of the forests and heaths to grow prosperous and, sometimes, healthy.
A couple of quotes in particular caught my eye. Hoskins romanticises the late seventeenth century, or more specifically 1688, as the finest time to be an Englishman:
Few boys lived beyond easy walking distance of thick woodland,or of wild and spacious heaths, where they could work off freely the aninal energies that in the twentieth century lead too manyb of them in the foul and joyless towns into the juvenile courts. There was plenty of scope for poachers of fish and game, and plenty of fresh air and space for everybody, and silence if they wanted it. No industrial smoke, nothing faster on the roads than a horse, no incessant noises from the sky; only three million people all told, spread thinly about the country. The largest provincial town (Norwich) could be described as ‘either a City in an Orchard, or an Orchard in a City, so equally are Houses and Trees blended in it’ – how infinitely more pleasant a place England then was for the majority of her people!
And then, in the best justification for exploring what’s on your own doorstep I’ve read, he writes:
So behind every generalization, there lies the infinite variety and beauty of detail; and it is the detail that matters, that gives pleasure to the eye and to the mind, as we traverse, on foot and unhurried, the landscape of any part of England.
While this book is rightly heralded as a classic work of local history, it also is important in learning about how the experience of living in England has changed over the centuries. Hoskins’ own views, including his distaste for much of the modern world, bubble up from the pages making for a lively read. He would have made an engaging dinner guest and near-unbeatable walking companion.
The Making of the English Landscape is a fine companion to exploring rural England, and is the perfect read this springtime to herald the excitement of summer.